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Review by Rich Cline |
dir Reinaldo Marcus Green
scr Zach Baylin
prd Will Smith, Tim White, Trevor White
with Will Smith, Aunjanue Ellis, Saniyya Sidney, Demi Singleton, Jon Bernthal, Tony Goldwyn, Layla Crawford, Mikayla Lashae Bartholomew, Daniele Lawson, Susie Abromeit, Katrina Begin, Dylan McDermott
release US/UK 19.Nov.21
21/US Warners 2h18
Is it streaming?
In this lively, crowd-pleasing biopic, Venus and Serena Williams' rise to fame is recounted through the story of their father. This throws things out of balance, because it's not actually his movie. In a mannered performance by Will Smith, Richard comes across as stubborn and annoying, which no doubt fuelled his daughters' success. But we're much more interested in their points of view, which are underrepresented here.
In South Central Los Angeles, Richard (Smith) began planning his daughters' tennis careers before they were born. His pushy approach lands a great coach (Goldwyn) for 12-year-old Venus (Sidney), while his wife Brandi (Ellis) uses videotapes to provide parallel training for younger Serena (Singleton). But Richard wants them to triumph in school as well, rather than playing junior matches. And he moves the family to Florida to train with Rick (Bernthal) instead, delaying Venus' professional debut until he feels the timing is right. Two years later, she may have something to say about that.
Director Green and writer Baylin approach the story fairly straightforwardly, finding intriguing layers in Richard's clashes with local gangsters and his determination that his girls won't end up like the other lost kids in the hood. And Brandi's steely support adds some strong texture as she confronts Richard about his bullheaded ways. For this family, everything they're trying to achieve is interlinked with the endemic racism in both society and the sport. They all understand that they're breaking barriers, although no one knows what this will mean.
In the title role, Smith conveys Richard's soulfulness underneath his relentless impulse to interfere in everything. That he never listens to anyone is a real problem with the character, as are the deliberate physical tics that constantly remind us that he's being played by a Hollywood star. He softens further in the end, after a tremendous kitchen scene opposite Ellis, who quietly steals the film with her emotional openness. Bernthal is also good fun as the flashy, frustrated super-coach.
There's plenty of warm humour woven through the script to keep the audience smiling, and some of the jokes have a terrific bite too, confronting the bigger issues head-on. So while the final act gets a bit lost in extended tennis matches and some family angst, the film does manage to remind us why the Williams sisters' success has been so important for the sport, and indeed the world. But seeing this through their eyes would have made the film even more powerful.
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© 2021 by Rich Cline, Shadows on the Wall
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